I hesitated writing this post. I never want to speak ill of the Jewish people, even isolated parts because I understand how someone reading my words might take that to be all Orthodox Jews, particularly if they’ve had little to no experiences with other Orthodox Jews. I also hesitated because I kept wondering if what happened was my fault, just like how my son didn’t tell us when a man at shul just picked him up during the High Holidays, scaring him. I feared if I said anything about what happened, it would either be dismissed as minor or it would somehow have been my fault.
But that’s exactly why things like this happen. Not every Jew that comes to a kiruv organization wanting to learn more about their Judaism is a good person, but we are commanded to assume that they are. In this case, though, I was placed in a situation with someone who was known not to behave appropriately. I’m fortunate that very little happened to me, but I feel like it’s something that BT’s and conversion candidates need to be aware of and to feel like they can stand up for themselves if they’re in a similar situation.
Kiruv is an overwhelmingly good thing. It’s the word for the process by which non-observant Jews are brought back to observance and thousands of Jews have increased their observance as a result of outreach efforts by observant Jews. As a result of so many attacks on Jewish identity, generations were raised with little to no idea of what being Jewish could mean for them. Kiruv organizations like Aish and Chabad work hard to help bring that message to secular Jews who might not even know what they are missing.
However, there are some downsides and I experienced one of them recently at a Shabbos table.
I was a guest, alone in an unfamiliar city and staying with a Rabbi and his wife. I was already feeling down and unwelcome for other reasons, but I hoped that dinner would help me connect here and feel the warmth of Shabbos. They had one other guest who showed up late and by the fact that he drove and his dress it became clear that this man was someone they were hoping to bring to greater observance. He sat down between me and the Rabbi at the head of the table and initially I welcomed him the same I would anyone else. That’s when things steadily went downhill.
This guest began to make offhand, inappropriate comments and eventually began touching my arm and shoulder to punctuate these comments. I felt very uncomfortable and I looked to the Rabbi at the head of the table, hoping he would say something to his guest…he didn’t. I saw him uncomfortable and trying to steer the conversation elsewhere, but it continued until I finally benched (said the blessing for after eating) and went to bed. The fact that the guest had mentioned that he’d been told by the Rabbi to “behave himself,” told me that this wasn’t surprising behavior from him. When I spoke about what had happened after Shabbos to a friend, they asked me why I didn’t stand up for myself. I really felt at a loss. The Rabbi and the Rebbetzin were right there and I didn’t feel it was my place to cause any conflict at their table. I told myself it was nothing, just some words and he’d only touched my arm and shoulder.
The fact is…often kiruv Rabbis are in a tough situation. The person who is acting inappropriately might be a major donor, someone who helps keep the doors of their shul open so that they can do the work they need to do in their community. Tolerating bad behavior from one might allow them to serve many. In other cases, the person acting poorly might be someone they see badly in need of help, a Jew on the edge. The person might be related to someone who is powerful or wealthy.
My host and hostess didn’t speak to me about what had happened afterwards. They avoided me the rest of my stay there. I wonder if it’s because they felt awkward about it all or if they somehow blamed me. I can’t know. I try to judge them favorably, assuming they were probably in one of those difficult situations or unsure how to handle what was happening. They were younger and perhaps this was something new to them. I also thought a lot about how I could handle things differently. I could have spoken up for myself. I could have asked him to stop touching me or to stop talking about lewd topics. Instead, I laughed nervously, trying to find the best time to politely get out of there. I felt unsafe, jetlagged, and alone. I couldn’t blame the experience on my halakhic status or lack thereof since it had never come up.
Kiruv is hard and difficult work and I admire the people who engage in it. They also must often tolerate so much directed at themselves and their families to do what they do. It may have been that what I went through was minor compared to what they’ve endured.
My husband and I also talked about how we would handle a similar situation at our Shabbos table. What would we do to keep any female guests feeling safe and comfortable if there was a male guest who crossed the line? Would that change any if it was a Rabbi or someone important? (It won’t.) Are we willing to deal with the fallout if we made someone feel unwelcome for their behavior? Where are our lines in the sand and where can we compromise?
I feel like this experience, as difficult as it was that weekend, was important to have. I walked that Shabbos day, my guests having left me on my own after services, and cried, but I also thought a lot about what had happened and what I could learn from it. I knew I didn’t want any woman traveling alone or whose husband was away to feel that way in my own home. I also looked at all the complicated layers to the situation, acknowledging that I couldn’t know all the details, either.
To me, it’s here, in the murky place between being a good host to a Jew who obviously badly needs Torah and allowing that which I cannot stomach that the rubber meets the road. Can I love my fellow Jew while still keeping my home a safe and welcoming place? Is there a point at which my fellow Jew has separated himself so much from what is good that I can no longer attempt to bring him close? I would guess that everyone has different lines. I needed this experience to show me where mine are. I left the home before my guests had returned after Shabbos, relieved to drive away. I left my thank you card and hostess gift just the same, still questioning whether I had done something wrong for them to leave me with the lockbox code and avoid me. I needed this experience to clearly show me what I don’t want in my home and what I don’t want people to feel in my home.
And that particular gentleman, in our home, would have been politely shown the door if a kind warning hadn’t put a stop to his behavior. He wouldn’t have been invited at all if his behavior was known, Jewish or not, wealthy and powerful or not.
I found my line.